By Uditha Devapriya –
Older than the Ashes and one of the oldest encounters of its kind, the Royal-Thomian kicked off three days ago amidst a gloomy spectacle of rain and thunder. This is one of the longest running school cricket matches in the world, clocking in 142 years. It is also one of the most celebrated, certainly one of the most hyped. Its reputation rests on the fact that, as some of its more fervent spectators and fans would say, “It stops for nothing.” Having survived the rigours of two world wars, a 30 year civil war, and much political turmoil, the boast is well-earned: few school events have been held up anywhere as highly as this.
The match almost stopped last year, and almost never happened this year. That it came to be held on both occasions, even as the much older Eton Harrow encounter had to be put on hold due to the pandemic in England, belies its importance for passionate old boys. For Sri Lankans in general, it signifies a sense of continuity, the need to move on.
It’s a different story with the country’s politics. The Royal-Thomian is also called the Battle of the Blues, because of the colour blue in both schools’ crests. For the government and its opponents, and even its allies and supporters, by contrast, it’s been a case of battling the blues. With one crisis following another, only to be followed by yet another, the regime is pitted against too vast a set of forces – social, political, economic, and cultural – to think of surviving until the next bout of elections, let alone winning them. We are seeing the most acute clash of ideas to hit the streets in a long time. This is the most polarised we have ever been in living memory. The government is going through the biggest crisis of legitimacy any administration here has seen since the 1980s. And we are feeling the heat.
Two years after it came to power promising peace, prosperity, and stability, what has the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government got to show for itself? Largely owing to the pandemic, very little. To be fair, the crisis we are seeing through now has not entirely been its doing: this is why whatever judgement we can make of Mr Rajapaksa will have to wait until 2024. But for the people, what might have been offers little consolation for what is happening.
For two years the government has been trying to address problems afflicting the country and the economy, as well as the people. That it has failed to resolve them, and managed at the same time to entangle itself in several standoffs, does it no credit.
Its problems began with the constituencies that the governing party, the SLPP, pandered to and won two years ago. Postal votes are a good indicator of election results in Sri Lanka. They are a gauge of middle-class sentiment and they offer a hint as to election outcomes. In November 2019 Mr Rajapaksa won a majority of these votes: from Colombo to Hambantota, bureaucrats and government workers voted against a regime seen to have compromised on development and national security. Together with the peasantry, sections of the country’s minorities, and Colombo’s upper bourgeoisie, they made up the largest electoral bloc any administration had seen since 1977. As C. A. Chandraprema was to say of the parliamentary elections eight months later, they gave the SLPP “the mother of all landslides.”
The problem with landslides is that they are easy to win, but hard to keep. In 2015 a not-so overwhelming majority pushed Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power in the belief that replacing his family with another set of politicians would usher in development and progress. It was a rude awakening for many. Besieged by its contradictions, the yahapalana regime dissolved quickly into a battleground of factions and sects, dissolving further into squabbling within parties. By the end of the second year, a consensus had grown that if all it took to prop up the country was to keep away the Rajapaksas, their successors had failed spectacularly and a return of the Rajapaksas wouldn’t be so bad. Fears of policy turnarounds and of bartering no less than the island’s sovereignty, epitomised well by the controversial MCC agreement, stoked much discontent. A thudding defeat was in the air.
Paradoxically, the yahapalana government made it possible, not merely for a Rajapaksa restoration, but for the election of the former president’s brother. Parallels with Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew notwithstanding, there was little that stood in Mr Gotabaya’s way. He had a world to win and a country to preside over. In November 2019, then, almost every community, including sections of ethnic minorities, gave him support. Even political commentators who had penned diatribes against him raised the possibility of better days ahead under him. Few thought otherwise: among them, Dayan Jayatilleka stood out. This was as it should be: no one wanted to back a dead horse, and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, for all its history and heritage, seemed like a relic of some distant, dark past.
It all looked like a good dream then, but the dream has dissolved away since. Besieged and belittled by one set of contradictions, the yahapalana regime spawned another. This time the contradictions cut into the heart of the new government’s constituency: an amorphous mixture of exploiting and exploited classes, of peasants and workers, of small producers and corporate bosses, of media magnates and petty scribes. It could not last for long. It certainly could not survive a crisis, still less one of systemic proportions. The first wave, and of course the government’s handling of it, did ensure a massive majority. Yet this is a majority it might not win again. Like Baltimora and Mungo Jerry, it will remain a one-hit wonder.
Not surprisingly, the Rajapaksa administration’s wide coalition has now proved to be its slipperiest slope and biggest stumbling point. Whatever policy it implements, attempts to implement, or reverses – and reversals have been part of the new normal in Sri Lanka – one group invariably pits itself against another; peasantry against traders, middle-class against hoarders, citizens against MPs, it’s all been one big mess. And now, amidst teachers’ strikes, trade union protests, and the dismal prospect of the country “going dark” for two days, the regime’s own coalition partners, about 11 in all, have begun to rebel.
Commentators are at most half-correct in drawing up a link between the quagmire the government finds itself in today and its restoration of what Jayadeva Uyangoda, in a recent piece to The Hindu, calls “Sri Lanka’s personalised model of executive authoritarianism.” For all the dangers it represents, the 20th Amendment did no more than reverse the gains of the 19th Amendment; it did not do so to the extent of returning to the 18th. In other words, it did entrench executive authoritarianism, but not so much as to revive the untrammelled powers the president’s brother enjoyed between 2011 and 2015. The crisis, as events have made it clear, thus goes much deeper than what liberal critiques would suggest.
What most analyses miss out is that the government is being held hostage by the very economic paradigms it tried to impose on the population. I disagree with commentators who compare these paradigms with the austerity measures imposed by the United Front government in the 1970s – because those measures were informed by far more strenuous external conditions, indeed less by the United Front’s socialist credentials than by the need to adjust to global food and fuel shortages – but I do agree that they involve what Dr Dayan Jayatilleka rightly calls “a savage capitalism, including abolition of price controls on essential items.” Hardly anyone, except perhaps the most neoliberal of free market advocates, would welcome imposing such measures on people.
These policies have distanced the government from every possible front, including the peasantry, the working class, and the middle-class. Dr Jayatilleka contends that a peasant uprising is in the air. This may well be. But what is more interesting is how a once dormant class, traditionally associated with the politics of populism, has been abandoned by a party led by a family whose political journey began in peasant strongholds. The working class was always the first to go during a crisis like this, but the middle-class is a more interesting case, in that a social group hardly known for its radical credentials has now banded together with radical movements: not just trade unions, but also student activists.
It goes without saying that none of this bodes well for the regime. To be fair, nor does it bode well for whatever party, or alliance, that comes to power next time. The conjunctions of class and ethnicity have made it difficult for any alliance, let alone party, to dominate the oppositional resistance. This is hardly something to celebrate.
The Battle of the Blues went off well enough, except for the rains. A former prefect, a friend and a student of mine, argued with me about whether it would be held at all. “It’s better to say it will be rescheduled,” he said. “It will be held no matter what, it hasn’t stopped for 141 years, and it has to be there this year too.” I thought otherwise, but I was wrong. Seeing it take place despite the biggest pandemic since the Spanish Flu, I cannot help but notice the contrast it offers with the government’s own battles. There is a sense of continuity, but also of change, throughout the country. There is also much frustration and much despair. Sooner or later, it’s bound to rise up, in far greater proportion than any school match.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org